Chase leader Jimmie Johnson on pole for Phoenix

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With Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth separated by only seven points with two races remaining, every advantage gained by either of them will be critical.

Today, Johnson may have earned a big one as he won the pole for Sunday’s Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway with a time of 25.858 seconds (139.222 mph) around the 1-mile oval. Before going out to qualify, Johnson said he expected track position to be the most critical factor in Sunday’s race.

“We haven’t been able to really work in a second lane around here and create passing opportunities,” he said. “That means your strategy on pit road and the stops themselves are where the weight really lies.

“If you back up another step from that, making sure your car is good on older tires is going to be important as race practice develops and you’re not going to want to be on pit road much or very long when it shakes out on Sunday.”

Johnson, a four-time winner at PIR and one of four drivers in the track’s history to win a Cup race from the pole position, was also quickest in this morning’s practice session. His pole run in the afternoon was a track record, marking the 19th time this season that the Generation 6 cars have broken an old mark.

As for Kenseth, who has one past win at PIR (2002), he will have to start from 14th position on Sunday after turning a lap of 26.143 seconds (137.704 mph).

Denny Hamlin, who has logged three consecutive top-three finishes at PIR, will start alongside Johnson on the front row thanks to his time of 25.895 seconds (139.023 mph). Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. (10th, 26.074 seconds/138.069 mph) are the only two non-Chase competitors with a Top-10 starting position for Sunday.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch make up Row 2, followed by Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer in Row 3, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch in Row 4, and Kevin Harvick and Truex in Row 5. Carl Edwards, who won this past spring at PIR, will have to rally from 23rd on the grid.

Other notables include Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 11th, Brad Keselowski in 12th, Jeff Burton (celebrating his 1,000th NASCAR national series start this weekend) in 15th, and Danica Patrick in 32nd.

INDYCAR announces several rules and protocol changes for 2018 season

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The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series opener is still more than six weeks away (March 11, St. Petersburg, Florida).

But several rules and protocol changes that will impact much of the 17-race season were announced today by INDYCAR officials.

First is related to Indianapolis 500 qualifying on May 19-20, one week prior to the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing:

* Driver and entrant points will be awarded to the top nine qualifiers for the race. The pole winner earns nine points and the second-fastest qualifier eight points, with awarded points decreasing by one point for each position down to one point earned by the ninth-fastest qualifier.

* Race points for the Indianapolis 500 and the 2018 season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 16, will still pay double the normal points for driver and entrant.

There are several other changes on tap for the season, as well.

Here’s a quick rundown of those changes (information courtesy of INDYCAR):

  • The qualifying order for all oval track events except the Indianapolis 500 will be determined by entrant points entering the event. The qualifying order will run in reverse order of entrant points, with the highest in entrant points qualifying last. A car without entrant points will be placed at the front of the qualifying line. If more than one car has no entrant points entering an event, a blind draw among those cars will determine their qualifying order at the front of the line. The qualifying order for the Indianapolis 500 will still be determined by a blind draw.
  • Times have been set for the series-wide open test at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway), scheduled for Feb. 9-10. The track will be open to all cars from 3-6 p.m. and 8-11 p.m. ET both days. INDYCAR has also added four hours of track time on Feb. 8 (3-7 p.m. ET) for rookie drivers to complete their oval test assessments.
  • The series-wide open test at Portland International Raceway will be held Aug. 30, a day prior to the beginning of the Grand Prix of Portland race weekend. Indy car racing returns to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in 11 years in 2018.
  • A schedule change for the month of May will see the INDYCAR garages closed on May 13 – the day after the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – to allow teams time off for Mother’s Day. The track will not be open to the public on this day. The garages will be open on May 14, but there will be no on-track activity.
  • Practice for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 begins Tuesday, May 15 on the IMS oval, with the first two hours open for rookie orientation and veteran refreshers, then to all cars. Practice continues May 16-18, ahead of qualifications weekend May 19-20.
  • INDYCAR is granting teams that did not participate in fall manufacturer testing with the universal aero kit an additional half day of private testing. The testing is limited to one car per team and must take place in conjunction with the team’s first on-track test of 2018. Each team is permitted five hours of track time and two sets of Firestone tires.
  • Working with Firestone, INDYCAR has increased the tire allotment at five events. The race weekends at ISM Raceway (Phoenix), the Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Texas Motor Speedway, the streets of Toronto and Iowa Speedway will see teams receive an additional set of tires. In a related change, drivers outside the top 10 in the point standings will no longer have an extra set of tires available to them for the opening practice session of a race weekend.
  • The minimum car weight for 2018 has been increased by 10 pounds – to 1,620 pounds for road and street courses and short ovals, 1,590 pounds for superspeedways (both do not include fuel, drink bottle and its contents, driver and driver equivalency weight) – to accommodate for new parts and additional on-car cameras related to the universal aero kit all competitors will run in 2018.